Ungovernable Cities: Is Seattle One of Them?


We are back east visiting family in Greenville, South Carolina. At the moment, however, we are in western North Carolina, near Asheville, in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains. Right at the edge of spring here. A nice hike today today up to a rocky ledge known as “Lover’s Leap.”

While visiting the history exhibit in the tiny town of Hot Springs, North Carolina, I learned an interesting thing. Although Tennessee was a Confederate state, people in east Tennessee were pro-Union and some fought on the Union side. As east Tennessee abuts western North Carolina, where we are visiting, this meant that family and neighbors in this part of the country found themselves on opposite sides in the Civil War. I don’t know whether this happened in other border states or counties during the Civil War. I would guess so.

At any rate, today’s division of families and friends amid our own polarized times, has plenty of precedent, perhaps even more painful than today’s divides.

Despite being nearly 3,000 miles from Seattle I have been mulling a few thoughts about Seattle, particularly in light of the defeat of Chicago Mayor, Lori Lightfoot. In a post at The Dispatch, the columnist Jonah Goldberg, notes that some observers, lamenting Lightfoot’s defeat, have declared that big cities today, e.g. Chicago, are simply “ungovernable.”

Goldberg also notes how thoroughly Chicago is a bastion of the Democratic Party. He wonders if the city is really “ungovernable” or if a kind of demo-sclerosis is the more likely problem? Goldberg points out that Chicago is, “A city where Joe Biden got nearly 9 out of 10 votes and whites make up just 31% of the population. The Chicago City Council has 50 seats, 46 of them held by Democrats. The other four are held by independents. William Hale Thompson, the last Republican to serve as mayor, left office in 1931, 11 years before Joe Biden was born.”

Goldberg goes on to pose this question: “But maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t that big cities are ungovernable, but that the entrenched Democratic machines dominated by fringe activists and pampered by friendly journalists are incapable of governing?”

That strikes me as a question to be asked in Seattle, which is also very much a one-party town. Is “The Emerald City,” which is beset by seemingly intractable problems, “ungovernable,” or is the Democratic/Progressive political monoculture not up to the job of governing?

To be clear, I’m not thinking here about Mayor Bruce Harrell. To my mind, the ballot is still out on the Mayor, who is now in his second year. I am thinking more of our City Council, School Board, and the three mayoral administration that preceded the current one. Is Seattle ungovernable, or is an entrenched Democratic/Progressive establishment dominated by activists and unions just not up to the job? It’s not so much that we need Republicans in the mix, though Republicans of the Dan Evans or John Spellman type would help. It’s that within our political mono-culture thought and expression are limited and those who deviate from the norm are often written off.

On another Seattle note, one of Post Alley’s founders, David Brewster, did an article last week on what is happening with mainline Protestant churches, particularly with regard to their buildings and property, in downtown Seattle. Brewster reviews a half dozen congregations that are at some stage of having torn-down and rebuilt, moved, closed or are reviewing their options for one or another strategy.

Brewster’s article is marked by both a sense of loss and opportunity. As he notes, many of these churches have been “mainstays” of Seattle, and as such deeply engaged in the life of the city from its beginnings. But perhaps their evolution, or devolution, will provide more needed housing in downtown Seattle?

I am, of course, biased. I cannot help but thinking that the the closure or down-sizing of churches in the city is a loss. But perhaps it is the beginning of something new and promising? I find I am ambivalent in just this way about a lot these days. Perhaps that’s just the way it is when you get older. You aren’t so sure that “change” is the unalloyed good that is generally held to be.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinsonhttps://www.anthonybrobinson.com/
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. I share your concern, and I think you’re dead on correct. There are a number of issues which are so deeply embedded in Democratic mentality that it’s practically impossible to discuss them. And I hesitate to mention some of those issues here because I don’t want to encourage more attacks on PostAlley as a bastion of extreme right-wing reaction. That’s what you get in Seattle if you mention anything that’s not party line.

    (By the way, that’s why I stress the importance of a better commenting system here on Post Alley, because there are opportunities for building a thoughtful left-center discussion in Seattle but I believe that the commenting system here is a lost opportunity to do so.)

  2. I stopped reading at “Jonah Goldberg.” It simply won’t do to label this low-rent right-wing troll and provocateur a “columnist” and leave it at that. Of course he’s going to blame everything on “the libs.” Please try to do better.

  3. I should add that “is the city ungovernable” a serious question that deserves a much more serious, much more in depth, far less superficial treatment. This isn’t it.

  4. I guess it’s inevitably the people’s job, to form a society that works well. The failures of our political class are only a reflection of our ineptitude as a society. But the society that can deal sensibly with complex, entrenched issues may have yet to emerge.

    A large part of the problem is people’s weakness for uncritical acceptance. For a couple of basic reasons:
    1. issues that are awkwardly complex
    2. various pressures that deter critical thinking.

    I didn’t read past the first paragraph or two of the Goldberg thing, lacking the necessary subscription, but it was fairly obvious where he was going. Identity politics is a fairly good example — it’s about entrenched, difficult problems, where the simple, easy approach (I presume Goldberg’s) doesn’t really dig down and get the roots, and there are the usual social pressures in the way of critical thinking. One doesn’t want to be a racist, or appear to go along with the simplistic outrage from the right wing grievance machine, it’s easier and nicer to support this token equality without thinking real hard about it. Thus is created a big constituency for poor quality governance, which in turn makes it easier for the opposition to make hay out of it; repeat cycle continuously.

    Similar things have been going on in the education establishment for generations. Currently it’s sweeping the land use policy area. Etc. The recent troubles in Seattle city hall may actually be something of an exception – certainly there’s a desperate lack of critical thinking on both sides, but the public sentiment that the council so grossly misread was actually not so well supported by those PC social pressures, so to whatever extent anyone really wanted serious defunding, that sentiment tended to evaporate significantly.

    Some day we’ll have artificial intelligence to help us with the analytic skills and energy we tend to be so deficient in. “Alexa, read the newspaper and pick out the questionable assumptions in that editorial on land use zoning.”

  5. If “Ungovernable” is roughly equivalent in meaning to “Unwilling to make workable plans and raise the funds needed to bring them to fruition”, I would have to hedge my answer. Progress in our city has from time to time been held up by the so-called “Seattle Process” of inviting all stakeholders to propose programs, endlessly review plans and generally talk them to death. What eventually gets done — if anything — comes year later, at higher cost, and leaves at least one half of the populace affected grumbling. The alternative name for that scenario is called “democracy.”
    On the other hand, if I interpret “Ungovernable” to mean “addicted to chaos with no one empowered to impose order”, I have to agree that recent years have sen a sudden and very marked increase in murder, mayhem, street crime, petty vandalism (e.g. ugly and even dangerous “tagging”- style graffiti covering walls, windows and even street and highway signage), not to mention the spread of tent, tarp and RV squatters’ camps in every part of town.
    Can nothing be done? Certainly it could, but “sweeps” are decried by activists (and may be illegal — another sore point) and as a result street-dwellers are encouraged — but not required — to accept the City’s offer of alternative accommodation (at public expense).
    A lake of ink has been expended in articles and commentary about “the Homeless Problem.” Seattle’s homeless population has grown, but only a portion of those so classified are deserving of our public support, in my opinion. We should reserve our sympathy and public support for the employable un- or under-employed, mental health patients and others who might be able to thrive given some support and a stable housing situation. The hobo lifestyler types should be allowed to pursue their panhandling elsewhere.
    As long as Seattle offers more benefits and fewer restrictions on anti-social behavior, it will be a magnet for drug dealers, drifters and transient ne’er-do-wells.

  6. Not ungovernable. Simply very poorly governed. Goldberg is correct; ‘the problem isn’t that big cities are ungovernable, but that the entrenched Democratic machines dominated by fringe activists and pampered by friendly journalists are incapable of governing’. If we keep electing them, we will see more of the same. And you’re also correct; ‘within our political mono-culture thought and expression are limited and those who deviate from the norm are often written off’. -Popularly called cancel culture. Its ironic that you typically will hear expressions such as ‘we need to have the tough conversations’, and ‘we need to listen to each other’ coming from these folks, but just try to have a different point of view. What they really want to hear is what they think, coming out of your mouth. Ivan is a common example. Offer a differing opinion and you’re a low-rent right-wing troll and provocateur. Classic.

    • Jonah Goldberg isn’t someone I normally agree with, but dismissing him as an idiotic racist doesn’t make sense either. I’ve had the same vitriol hurled at me from Ivan that you write of, David Berett — it was pointless for me to respond, “but I’ve been a progressive Democratic voter for years, Ivan.” (I have to be honest, here…I didn’t take it personally and rather enjoyed it, because it gave me a good laugh.) It’s a simple but demonstrable truth that one political party in power for years, without serious competition, is NOT good governance.

  7. In the most general sense, effective governments – those rooted in pragmatism and emphasizing results – are built around a critically important feedback loop. That loop operates like this: as a starting point, the ideological commitments and value systems of elected leaders shape how they craft policy proposals to address perceived problems, and then those policies are constantly tested against the realities of what effects they are producing on the ground, and then these electeds adjust and recalibrate those approaches accordingly to improve results.

    The social media driven activist ascendence in blue cities, and the purist politics they advocate, has created a very different feedback loop for elected officials. Under such an “activist governance” model, when ideologically driven policy outcomes do not deliver the desired results, that leads electeds not to question whether their ideological commitments need adjustment, but rather leads them to double down on those commitments.

    Any adjustments that are made are not in the direction of tempering ideology with pragmatism, or with acknowledging the limits of ideological governance, but the opposite: the failure of these policies is blamed on not being ideologically pure enough, and therefore any changes that are made are either in the wrong direction or at best tangential to what actually needs to happen, only accelerating the failure of those policies and increasing the problems they are creating, or at least failing to solve.

    In that sense, I do think there is a argument to be made that West coast blue cities have become, at least in some respects, a cautionary tale of what happens to governance when (in this case, left progressive) ideology is allowed to rule the roost divorced from reality and consequence.

    To be clear, though, this sort of governance breakdown isn’t just a problem on the left; it happens all the time on the right too, when overly ideological activist-driven governance enjoys free reign. Think of the disastrous “Kansas experiment” circa 2012-17, which exposed the false assumptions at the core of the Reagan right’s faith-based belief in supply side, trickle down economics. Or more recently, and similarly, the recent spectacularly disastrous economic mess in Britain that resulted from Prime Minister Liz Truss blindly putting her faith in right-wing Thatcherite trickle down tax cuts, while utterly ignoring the glaring warning signs that the policy ideas born of her purist ideological beliefs were fantastically ill suited to address the actual reality of Britain’s present day economy.

    Ideology has it’s place in governance, and it’s an important one. But ideological rigidity or purism can get in the way of effective governance.

    • Your comments are very well conceived and written. Having said that, you stopped me with “it happens all the time on the right too”, followed by your examples of the Kansas Experiment and the failed policies Liz Truss advanced in the UK. Neither of these examples are of Cities, and I think you will struggle to provide a US example of a large city under longtime Republican control with the kind of issues and lack of critical thinking we see in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, NY, Chicago, etc. etc. In the Kansas example, this was a statewide effort to cut taxes that failed mostly because there wasn’t a commensurate cut in government spending. For another example, you went to another country. Certainly , your point about clinging to ideological purity without practical considerations is well taken, for any ideological position, but I’m not sure you find this in practice in big cities, other than those in the grip of long-standing Democratic control.

  8. Politics here used to be easy: follow the pointed suggestions for policy changes suggested by the emissaries of downtown commercial interests, organized labor, and large employers. The current crop of senior officials rose to positions of power by doing exactly that. It was better for their careers to ignore other voices and perspectives — that explains their hubris, and their willingness to disregard all other perspectives.

    Things changed profoundly over the past several years, especially downtown. Now residents need government leaders willing to change longstanding policies even if doing so will gore oxen belonging to powerful interest groups.

    If some competent leadership doesn’t start emerging from the political mono-culture I’m afraid Seattle’s downward slide won’t slow down.


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